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Newark, New Jersey (CNN)The school is so old it’s seen not one but two global pandemics, plus a civil war. Now its superintendent is hoping new federal funding will bring it firmly into the 21st century.
“Polk was the President when this building was erected and children began attending,” said Roger León, of the Lafayette Street Elementary School in Newark, New Jersey.
Built in 1848, the school has seen additions and even recent renovations, but it still lacks on basic needs like heating and lighting, according to León, superintendent of the Newark Board of Education.
“We have a boiler system that runs on oil that’s way close to 50 years old,” he said, adding that opening windows are the only means of ventilation.
And the lighting “is just not appropriate for the type of lighting that we would have a need for our students on the technology front,” he said.
Lafayette Street Elementary is far from alone — just in Newark, León has 29 of his 64 schools dating back at least 100 years to a time when the world was pulling out of the 1919 flu pandemic.
With their storied legacies, comes a cascading list of structural failings — from the inadequate ventilation, antiquated heating and poor lighting to the hidden danger of asbestos beneath the floors.
But León seems upbeat and ready to tackle the challenges head on.
“I think that the school system and the city of Newark with its rich history is always poised for greatness,” he said. “One of the realities is that we always seek that greatness as a result of a crisis. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now.”
León said the problems with the school infrastructure were obvious before the disaster wrought by Covid.
In 2016, the district, one of New Jersey’s poorest, asked the state for $311 million to fund more than 150 projects. As of today, only 11 have been approved.
“The funds to actually do the major [repairs] that are required aren’t here,” said León, who became district superintendent in 2018. “So what we have done is actually utilize the funds that are available and make emergent projects, ones that rise to the occasion.”
Across the country, thousands of superintendents find themselves in similar positions, with outdated, crumbling schools. The structural crises are an issue that President Joe Biden hopes to tackle as part of his infrastructure plan, first priced at nearly $2 trillion.
The administration has allocated $100 billion for new school construction and upgrades to existing building to address what Biden calls “a clear and present danger to our children’s health.”
In his address to Congress in April, Biden highlighted one of the invisible dangers. “Today, up to 10 million homes and more than 400,000 schools and childcare centers have pipes with lead in them, including for drinking water,” he said as he touted his plans to replace all pipes and service lines with lead to help health and create jobs.
Experts agree there is plenty of work to do. In 2019, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported more than 40% of schools appeared to have lead in their tap water and that most schools don’t even test for lead. The Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control agree there is no safe level of lead for children and that it can lead to behavior and learning problems and slowed growth.
Beyond water supply, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation’s approximately 84,000 public schools a failing grade of D+.
According to the group’s analysis, 53% of school districts need to upgrade or replace multiple systems in their buildings, including critical HVAC systems. One third of schools are forced to use portable buildings to be able to have classrooms for all their students, the group said.
In Newark, León is ready to get improvements going, having worked on a 10-year strategic plan before Covid hit.
“We have three-inch binders on every single one of the schools and so we have a good sense of what the needs were,” he said.
When the money comes through, he envisions almost immediate improvements will be seen and he said he takes responsibility for ensuring the funds accomplish the intended goals.
“This is about having our students ready and able to not only have discourse with children from affluent school districts in New Jersey, but affluent school districts across the country and the world,” he said. “The country needs to understand that children in urban school districts all across the country and I’ll be real specific in Newark, are important towards the changing the realities of their lives.”